One morning, when Alphus went to feed the quail cult living under the long-dead raspberry bushes, he noticed a shrub where a shrub should not have been. It wasn’t that he had particular rules banning shrubbery from growing in that location; in fact, it was even pleasing to the eye in that it broke the otherwise monotonous snowscape of the backyard. It’s just that it wasn’t there the night before.
Alphus had to maneuver carefully across his lawn. First, of course, he had to shimmy up the snow that sloped out from under his eaves and then mindfully step onto the fresh powder from the night before. The snow was so old that there wasn’t much chance of his sinking the four or five feet to solid ground, but he was in danger of sticking a foot through the fresh stuff, to where it covered his shin and got in his slippers and so forth. He proceeded as lightly as possible.
The shrub, upon closer inspection, was not so evergreen as it had looked at first. It did not have needles or branches and instead had a more reptilian sheen. It rose out of the ground in a cylindrical shape that bulged slightly on top. He was puzzled and still more puzzled when it swayed even though there was no wind.
Suddenly it doubled in size. It now looked more like the back of a person than a shrub, a person in a long green coat. Alphus was relieved; he had no experience in botany.
The girl stood four feet tall and was dressed in an ankle-length green coat and an orange knit cap with a bombom. She did not turn towards Alphus so he slowly wandered his way around to face her. Her orange bombom flopped backwards as she looked up and started jabbing a pen at the air.
“Excuse me,” said Alphus as she used an ungloved hand to produce a notebook from inside her jacket and scribble something on it. Her hair was rather stiff and cut in a severe line below her chin. Her bulbous gray eyes did not focus on him as he began to bob his hand in front of her…
“What!” The girl formerly mistaken for a shrub exclaimed. In her surprise, she sat down hard in the snow. “Who? Who let you in here? I’m sorry, but I should not have to tell you that this space, at least a five-meter radius and a height of ten along the z-axis in cylindrical coordinates, which I would be crazy not to use given the initial conditions, has been set aside for scientific research. Damn apes walking on two legs, escaped from Africa over the Bering land bridge before that sucker got flooded, always stepping in front of a person obviously engaged in productive research, what do you want this time?”
Alphus shrugged and offered her his hand to help get her out of the snow. She rejected it and scampered up on her own. After she dusted herself off, she jumped again, surprised to see him standing in front of her.
“Are you applying to be my assistant? Well, here’s something: the flock of quail living in these dormant raspberry bushes,” she said looking somewhere over his left shoulder, “have become practically subterranean; they have tunnels running all along this area. And frankly, someone must be feeding them. They shouldn’t be alive in such a climate, but besides that they are fascinatingly normal. Just fascinating. You can catalogue them and write me up a report.”
Alphus noticed how efficient the girl was in talking; for how much sound she made, she moved her small mouth hardly at all.
“Please sir,” she noticed Alphus again, “you are standing in the middle of my research. Can you please move five meters to the left?”
Alphus did so, approximately, and the girl continued to follow the movements of various snowflakes with her pen and scribble things in her notebook.
Alphus fed the quail from a distance. He couldn’t tell if he was entranced with his new friend (Is she my friend now?) or just confused. His ears rang a little bit from her shouting. He walked back onto the porch and then inside. It was the first time in his memory that anyone other than himself and the quail had been in his backyard.
An hour or so later the girl was still there. Alphus put a pot of milk on the stove to simmer. Then he squeezed in the bottle of syrup to make it chocolatey brown. He took his reserve mug out of the cabinet – he only ever used the one since he never had company; he was pleased that in his good forethought, he had bought another just in case – filled it with the steaming liquid, and plopped a daub of light whipped cream on top for effect. He stepped back out onto his porch.
“I have hot chocolate.” He offered.
“You again.” The girl said, “Alright, make yourself at home, I suppose. You seem to have already taken the liberty of mentioning chocolate in the middle of my research, so why not disturb me more. But anyway, the data seems to be supporting my hypothesis which is a good sign but I dare say not as interesting as something I had not predicted. Like the cure for cancer – tee hee – in snowflakes. Ha ha ha. You, I suppose, yes, I will take your hot chocolate. Though I doubt very much that the Curies took hot chocolate breaks. No, they worked long into the night until they caught pneumonia, their fingers blistered, and their eyesight went. I suppose I should stay humble and not even consider the possibility that I might ever be ranked among them. It appears there will be no dual Nobel Prize for me – hot chocolate break.”
She walked up to the porch and followed Alphus inside.
“What’s your name?” He asked as they sat down at the small kitchen table. He watched her drink.
“Gauss Anne Worlby,” she said, both hands, a painful shade of red, clasped to her mug. She had to lift her arms up to chest height to get them on the table. She stared into her beverage, watching the bubbles that had collected against the lip slowly pop. She muttered something about surface tension.
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
Without waiting for him to answer, she continued, “The snow. People seem to forget that non-stop snow for more than twenty years is inexplicable! They accept it, entirely accept it. Just like they’ve done with toasters or with the fact that the immense bulk of this planet does not pull us through the crust and suck us all the way to the core! Doesn’t it bother you? Intrigue you? That the moon doesn’t fall into the ocean and that flowers have five or eight petals but not six or seven? You know that ice floats?”
“Um,” said Alphus.
“Your name, obviously. What’s your name?”
“Alphus Gibb,” Alphus shrugged.
He wasn’t sure why he shrugged. He knew that that was definitely his name. He was about to repeat it more confidently and took a breath to speak again as Gauss Anne said,
“That’s okay. Gibb. It means that at least you may have some relative that went to Cambridge with the rest of them and contributed, even, something to the field of thermodynamics. No, not bad at all. Pleased to meet you, Alphus.”
Alphus blushed, unsure of what to do with the breath he had just taken.
“Welp, work to do,” said Gauss Anne and headed to the front door. She had a tendency to shuffle more than walk. She opened the door with a bang and closed it more emphatically. Alphus sighed which was a relief because his head had started to hurt. He continued to sit by himself at the kitchen table thinking nothing. When he was done, he drank the dregs of Gauss Anne Worlby’s hot chocolate.